There were levels of sleep. The light sleep of sedentary individuals. The deep sleep of more active people. The vigilant sleep of those who breathed in danger on a daily basis. The senseless sleep of civilians. The half-dead sleep of the elderly.
And then there was the never-quite-fully-asleep period of rest of the truly powerful.
Naruto's sleep was like this. His mind rested, but his senses were never dulled. In slumber, they often shifted to something more perceptive than when he was awake. Awake, he was muzzled by the five senses everyone else used. With Sasuke in his life, one could say these senses had been sharpened further. The way a blade is routinely kept sharp by someone who has something to guard or protect.
So he was aware.
When he came awake in his dark bedroom, an influx of data passed over his mind: Sasuke was snoring beside him, unhurt; His room was dark, the air cold and of a particular weight and temperature that told him it was between 2 and 3 am; there was someone immediately to his left. In his bedroom.
The person was good. To come up the mountain unchecked, across his clearing, into his house, and up to his bed before he woke? Very good.
Still as he was, Sage Mode came effortlessly. Only when it was in place did he calmly and slowly open his eyes.
But Sasuke snapped awake at feeling his chakra. He felt Sasuke's hand slap at his side of the bed, landing with a crack on his bare shoulder. "Naruto?"
He didn't move. As long as the presence was still, he was still. Aware of each nanosecond of time as a separate beat. Finely attuned to the intruder. His position. His height, his weight, though his back was to him. He could hear the person's breathing, the slow thud of his heart. Smell him. All during the moment Sasuke first slapped at him, then began sitting up as he, too, became aware of someone else in the room.
Still. He was so still, with the intruder. Silent, as Sasuke first opened his mouth to shout or speak, then began swinging his legs off the bed. This all seemed slow to Naruto, like a soundless drama unfolding in the dark. His eyes remained fixed in one place, seeing Sasuke's response without diverting his attention from the intruder.
By the beat of the person's heart, Naruto judged him to be a young man. He would be fast, given his obvious stealth. And so he waited, breathing at the young man's own breath rhythm; between one beat of that foreign heart and another, in the brief pause between inhale and exhale, Naruto would strike.
Sasuke's feet hit the floor. The intruder moved at last, and Naruto was on his feet behind the man-
A flashlight was flicked on and shone directly into Naruto's face. It temporarily blinded him, and scattered his intent to kill.
"Hey there, buddy! Bad time?"
This frightfully loud and obscenely cheerful voice was instantly recognizable. "Itachi?" Sasuke exploded from across the room. "Is that you?"
Itachi held the bright light in Naruto's face a moment more. It kept the freak off-balance, and gave him a chance to calm his racing pulse down. Thank fuck no one could see how badly his hands were shaking. The light shivered on Naruto's features, but considering that Naruto had a hand up to shield his eyes, and Sasuke was currently ranting to the room at large, neither of them noticed.
He didn't think he'd ever been so close to death. Not since Akatsuki'd had him and he actually had died.
His chakra had been masked too, that was the thing. He'd masked it just as hard as he could before setting out tonight. Had made it all the way to the bedroom without incident. Two seconds. He'd been standing at the bedside for two whole seconds before he sensed Naruto wake up.
As long as he lived he would never forget the sensation of Naruto's awareness. Of his unhurried and deliberate shift to the offensive. How the man had waited. Alert to him. Sasuke's reaction had been ignored; the threat of Naruto silently grew as the next two seconds ticked by. He'd felt some kind of unshakable…thing, some kind of answering awareness in his own body, of Naruto and the violence escalating in him. For a moment there it had almost been as if they'd been sharing the same skin. Breathing in time, completely in sync the way predator and prey sometimes were before the pounce. That one moment was the only reason he'd sensed Naruto moving almost before he'd actually moved. He'd been able to turn around and have himself facing where Naruto appeared at his back –with no clear memory of doing so- and thus realize that a hand was reaching for him. Naruto's hand. Not just reaching, but there, the fingernails pressing into his chest in preparation to punching right through and seizing his heart. It felt like slow motion, though the touch had probably been instantaneous. It had only been his heightened senses that made it seem otherwise.
His thumb had flicked the switch on the flashlight out of pure, terrified reflex. The hand digging painfully into his skin had been jerked up instead, and he'd sucked in a sick, convulsive breath. Let it out again in the first thing to come to mind. His voice had been loud and wild, he knew, but now here they were.
Fucking Christ, I am never doing that again.
But they didn't need to know that.
"Itachi." Sasuke's voice was sharp. Irritated. "Are you going to answer me?"
Taking a few steps sideways, thereby putting distance between himself and Naruto, Itachi finally swung the light to Sasuke's face, blinding him. "'Bout what?"
"The fuck are you doing here!"
Now that the threat was over, and he could see Naruto surfacing from whatever kill-first-ask-later trance he'd been in, Itachi relaxed. Mostly, anyway. He was there for a reason, though. "Came to visit," he said brightly.
His brother went silent, but Naruto said "Oh," in a small, delighted voice. When Itachi swung the light back to him, it was to find the unpleasant sight of Naruto grinning, eyes somehow intense in their crinkled happiness.
Sasuke looked back and forth between Naruto's illuminated face and what he could see of Itachi. "What do you mean oh? Itachi, what the fuck. Are you crazy, coming over here unannounced at this hour?"
The light swung to him again, stinging his eyes. "What, you mean the way your hubby there came to my house the other night and did the exact same thing?"
"What? Get that shit out of my eyes, what?" He squinted in Naruto's direction. "What's he talking about?"
Naruto moved around the room, lighting a few candles. He was absurdly touched at this effort Itachi was making. He hadn't thought either of them would expand so soon on the progress they'd made with his impromptu visit two nights ago, but this was good. He turned from lighting the last candle and smiled at them both. "I did visit the other night. You were angry at me, so I went to him-"
Itachi held up a hand. "No. What he did was to break my house door and walk into my bedroom. In the middle of the night. Holding my kid."
Sasuke turned wide, disbelieving eyes to Naruto, who was nodding. "You did what?" he said hoarsely.
"I visited," Naruto said. "Took your advice, tried to see Itachi as family. He did say I could visit anytime. We had a good time, too." His smile was one of proud satisfaction.
Sasuke was sure that were Iruka present he would be gently steering this bizarre situation out of the mess it was heading toward, but it was just the three of them. If the perky and unnaturally merry look on Itachi's face was any indication, he was feeling something potent just then. Could be anger, but if Naruto had done what he did two days ago, his anger would have settled down by now. Then he thought of how Itachi must have woken up to find Naruto in his room and amended that. Itachi never 'got over' anger he felt. He simply waited, putting the emotion away, until he had an opportunity to use it. Whatever he was feeling, he was not here to visit.
Looking at Naruto, Sasuke saw that this detail was lost on him. He didn't have all the facts, but he watched and listened carefully as Itachi turned to Naruto now.
"So! Hope you don't mind me coming over like this?"
"No, of course not." Naruto's smile broadened.
"Middle of the night."
"You were sleeping."
Itachi waited a moment, apparently deciding to switch tactics. "Let's go hunting."
Now Naruto blinked, and his smile faltered. "Hunting?"
The confusion in those blue eyes seemed to lift Itachi's already high spirits. "Yeah! Outside the village. Hunting. You and me, manly men, bringing home the bacon. What do you say?"
As if gauging the veracity of this proposition, Naruto glanced at Sasuke, who seemed tense. "It's a bit early to hunt. Optimal time would be dawn, or else dusk…"
"Great! Dawn's in a few hours. Let's go." Itachi turned for the door, but turned back when Naruto didn't move. "You coming?"
"Hunting takes time. A day at least to scout and stalk, even when planned. The game would be far from the village. Aside from which, there is no real game worth hunting in Fire Country. It's moved on to less populated areas."
"Then let's hunt something that's not game."
"I have work," Naruto said slowly.
Itachi turned and faced Naruto squarely, tilting his head. "You wouldn't be refusing me, now would you? Because I specifically got up in the middle of the night, left my pregnant wife, and trudged up this mountain so we could hang. I'd be crushed if you turned me down, man. Family doesn't do that to each other. Are you turning me down?"
Naruto blinked, taking this pronouncement with the utmost seriousness. "No, I…no."
Itachi's face cleared. "Good! Why don't you go pack us a lunch while I talk to my bro here, hm?"
All but scratching his head in bewilderment, Naruto made his way out of the bedroom and into the hall.
The fierce grin Itachi had maintained all this time fell off his face the moment Naruto closed the door behind himself. His eyes zeroed in on Sasuke's with a look that almost made the younger man step back. "You."
"What the hell is going on?" Sasuke hissed, stepping around the bed.
"Exactly what I told you," Itachi snapped in an answering whisper. He moved farther into the room, meeting Sasuke half way. "That freak was in my house. I'm giving him a taste of his own medicine now, hopefully set his dumb ass straight, but you need to keep your man on a leash. The fuck, Sasuke he broke in to my house."
Sasuke worried the inside of his cheek, staring hard at Itachi's irate face. "He really broke the door?"
"Yes!" Itachi closed his eyes a moment. "Look, something is wrong with him. He can't waltz in there at that time of night, tell me he's visiting, and think it's normal."
"But he probably does think it's normal, or he wouldn't have done it."
"And this is who you lie down with," Itachi hissed. Naruto could be heard coming back. "Check him, Sasuke, or I will."
Naruto ducked back into the bedroom, and Itachi turned without missing a beat, broad smile splitting his face. "All set?" he nearly yelled.
"Yes. Everything's in the truck." Naruto couldn't help returning Itachi's smile. Once Itachi had gone out to the truck, he went to Sasuke and brushed a kiss over his mouth. "I guess I'll be back tonight."
"What about your duties?"
Naruto hesitated. "Tell Kakashi to handle things today."
Sasuke watched him leave with a frown of confusion on his face. Why on earth was Naruto so fixated on his brother of a sudden?
This time it was the phone that woke him. It was on the nightstand, charging. The insistent ringing was heard in whatever dream he was having, heard without pause. Then it did stop. Still more asleep than awake, he heard the little chirrup that signified he'd received a text message. Heard it five times, ten, a dozen times. And then the phone ringing, ringing, ringing once more until it seemed the phone itself was screaming for him to wake up. It wasn't Sasuke's ringtone or he'd have answered it on the first ring. As it was, he threw a hand out toward the nightstand, snagged the fucking thing, flicked it open, and pressed it to his ear, all without opening his eyes. "Somebody better be dead."
"Not that I know of."
Itachi sat up. "Naruto?"
"I'm calling first, like you asked me to. How are you?"
He pulled the phone away from his ear long enough to see on its display that it was just after midnight. Then he slowly brought it to his head again as something else registered. "Where are you?" he asked in dread.
"On your couch."
Which was what he was afraid of; he could hear Naruto speaking out in the living room. Moving slowly so as not to wake Mo, he eased off the bed, ending the call in the process. He went out to the living room.
Naruto looked up at him pleasantly. His hands were folded across his stomach, huge feet planted firmly on the floor. For a moment, several moments, Itachi just stared at him. Looked him right in the eyes, trying to see into him the way he saw into everyone else he ever had reason to associate with. It was something he normally did without conscious thought, and an ability that had kept him and Sasuke alive. Aside from that, his previous livelihood had depended on him being able to assess a client at a glance.
He could remember when he'd first really gauged Naruto. Back when he'd charged into the bungalow on top of the mountain to find him putting the moves on Sasuke. Violent as that encounter had been, he'd been able to see an obsession with his little brother. It was in the way Naruto had held him, the intent look on his face just before that kiss…the look of inhuman rage when he'd made his presence known and the kiss hadn't happened. And the utter fury at learning that he, Itachi, meant to take Sasuke away from him. That was pretty much how he interpreted Naruto. As someone obsessed, who was prone to the wild, unreasoning actions of the obsessed.
But I'm not Sasuke, so what the fuck is he doing stalking my ass?
A flick of his eyes showed his house door ajar, the knob hanging drunkenly. He used this as a starting point by gesturing at it. "See you broke in again. Thought we talked about that?"
Naruto looked at the door. "I did call first, but you didn't answer."
"I was sleeping, you f-"
"And then I sent text messages, but you didn't reply."
Itachi waited. Naruto smiled and blinked until he said, "So…you broke in again."
"I really enjoyed our hunting yesterday. Not that we caught much, but your company was refreshing."
"I see. Is that why you're here? To tell me all that?"
"Yes. And to see you."
Itachi broke into a light sweat. Try as he might, he was drawing a blank on motive. That Naruto was now somehow fixated on him was glaringly obvious, but he couldn't find a reason. To be the focus of someone with Naruto's strength and insanity was bad enough, but if one couldn't even pinpoint the reason…
Moistening his lips, he edged backward, toward the chair opposite the couch. Once he'd lowered himself into it, he attempted a voice of calm. "You broke into my house again. I don't like that. And you and Sasuke aren't fighting again, so I don't understand why you're here. So late. Again."
Naruto's frown was slow to form. He spoke as if confused. "I thought the time was all right…it's not as late as the last time I came over. I'm not in your bedroom, like before. I know you didn't like that. And I knocked and called and messaged all with no answer."
It came to him that for Naruto calling and texting were only formalities. They had no bearing on whether or not he could enter the apartment. "Naruto?"
"Unless I open my door for you, you can't come into my house."
"Because it's my house."
"But you…I'm family. We're family. You said I could come over at any time, that your house is mine. We're family."
Itachi rubbed his palms on the arms of the chair, thinking. He considered and discarded several responses in order to say, "So you're here now. Seeing me. What next?"
Naruto settled back with a broadening of his smile, relieved that whatever tension Itachi seemed to be feeling was gone.
Sasuke, engrossed as he was in the data coming up on the mid-quadrant screens, bit off a curse when his chair was suddenly grabbed from behind and forcibly swiveled around. He came face to face with Itachi. "Thought I told you to put your man in check?" Itachi spat.
"I did! I mean I told him he can't go over to your place so late and-"
"He was there last night." Itachi straightened up and went to his side of the room as he explained. "The next time he does it I'm dropping him. Fuck if I'll live like this, with his ass popping in whenever he wants."
"As if you could."
Itachi hesitated, reading the info he called up on screen. Seemed there was questionable activity going on over in Oto. "So maybe I can't take him," he reluctantly agreed. "But, dammit, something's got to be done. What's his deal? Why's he so stuck on me of a sudden?"
"I don't know."
"You stop giving it up?"
"Our sex life is fine."
Itachi turned in his seat to look at him. "Did you know he'd left the house last night?"
Now Sasuke had the grace to look abashed. "No, but-"
"Then shit ain't fine with you two." He resumed looking at his screen. "When's your next appointment with Iruka?"
"Uh…night after next, for the both of us. But Naruto has a sesh tonight."
Itachi said no more.
"Ah, Naruto. Right on time, as usual." Iruka smiled as he moved toward the cushy chairs they used during their sessions. He sat, and waited for Naruto to take the seat opposite him. "Anything you'd care to bring up tonight?"
Naruto jerked a thumb at the door. "Was that Itachi I just saw leaving?"
"Yes. He wanted my advice on a matter."
"Didn't know you counseled anyone but me and Sasuke."
"Technically, I'm not supposed to counsel anyone but you, and by extension Sasuke. However, this was a special case. Well?"
"What?" Naruto left off staring at the door. "Oh. Um…no, nothing in particular I'd like to bring up." He glanced at the door again.
Iruka noticed. "Why don't we discuss Itachi then? I understand he invited you to dinner. You and I had a session right before that, but since you never brought up what happened at the dinner at our last session…"
"The dinner was days ago. It went very well."
Noting Naruto's wide smile, Iruka said, "Care to elaborate? Give me details. Tell me everything that happened, how you felt, what was said."
That took quite awhile. Talking about the dinner led naturally into his visits to Itachi, and Itachi's visit to him. He even held up his new phone. By the time he stopped speaking, the hour was done. Naruto sat calmly, a pleasant expression on his face, while Iruka came to a decision.
"Naruto, I have to be blunt, Itachi was here about you. Before I get into that, though, I must… No. First, how are things with Sasuke? You said he was upset that night."
"Yes. And I think things are much better now."
"He isn't still angry?"
"All right. And Itachi?"
"What about him?"
"Well…I distinctly recall your hatred of him. How you were privately dreading the dinner invite, and how you despaired of ever being able to live up to Sasuke's wish that you and his brother get over the animosity between you two. What's changed?"
Naruto blinked, frowning down at his knee. "I don't really…know how to explain it. He's very strange, isn't he?"
"Who, Itachi? I would call him many things, but strange? I'm afraid I don't follow."
"I didn't like him, but he's never actually tried to take Sasuke from me. Not after that time all those years ago. And at dinner he was…what is the word, hospitable? He made me feel comfortable. He enjoyed my prank so much that he teased Sasuke about it, and got me to play along. He's very funny," Naruto finished with a chuckle. "I like how he talks to me."
Hanging on to every word, Iruka said, "And how does he talk to you?"
"Like I'm just an ordinary person. Just some man off the street. No…like family. He treats me with the same familiarity he does Sasuke, not like I'm the Hokage or the Vessel."
"I see. Naruto…why do you visit him so late at night?"
"I'm working during the day, you know that. And after, I go home to spend time with Sasuke."
"Yes, but…well I guess what I meant to ask is why you've broken his door. Not once, but twice. Itachi did say that he didn't like that, didn't he?"
"He did, but it's just a door."
"No, Naruto, it's not. It's his privacy. I'm sure you can understand that?"
"The notion of privacy? Of course. But he's my family now. My brother. Privacy means nothing to the needs of family."
"Where on earth did you hear that?"
"I have never-"
Naruto held up a hand. "Didn't you tell me, repeatedly, that family enjoys rules separate from those that other relationships enjoy? That essentially, where family is concerned, there are no rules? Wasn't it you who told me that Sasuke could say and do as he liked with me when it came to his brother? Back when he wanted to go and rescue him from Akatsuki? Maybe you didn't say it in so many words, but you specifically told me that coming between family members would have catastrophic results. I took that to mean that when it comes to family there are no boundaries. Was I wrong?"
"What about Itachi deliberately letting himself be caught in the first place? Putting Sasuke at risk the way he did in the name of keeping him safe? Or how about all the times, when I told you how much I hated Itachi, you told me that he was someone I was going to have to accept because he was Sasuke's brother and as much a part of him as the hair on his head? You have told me times without number how important family is. How nothing –nothing!- comes before family. How it was even more important than lovers. Didn't you say all that?"
Iruka was beginning to feel the unease Itachi had displayed. "I did, yes."
"And, correct me if I'm wrong, didn't you say that when family is in need, no request was too big? That family was where one turned to for help, where they received unconditional acceptance, where the bonds were strongest? Too strong to be severed?"
"In an ideal family, yes. But Naruto-"
"Well, now I have family. I've never had that. Friends, yes. And I have Sasuke. But Sasuke's my lover. My…my man. Itachi's my brother. I want to get to know him. I like being around him, and he feels the same way. No one treats me like he does, not my friends nor Sasuke. I told you how Itachi came over to the bungalow? Oh it was fun, the way he snuck up on me. And the hunting afterward! We-"
Iruka rather thought that now would be an inappropriate time to point out that Itachi had been trying to teach him a lesson. "But breaking his door…violating his home that way…you have to understand how he sees it? He's expressly told you not to do that."
"But it's just a door. Sasuke can show up there at any time of the day or night, no matter what. Why can't I?"
It wasn't so hard for Iruka to understand that as intelligent as Naruto was, there were some things he simply couldn't understand. After all, there were large gaps in Naruto's social development. This, though, was proving more difficult than he realized. He couldn't very well tell Naruto that Sasuke was blood to Itachi, while Naruto was essentially still a stranger. Not without risking some negative side effects, but he saw no way around it. "There's a difference between you and Sasuke…"
Naruto listened. "Blood? Iruka, please. You've told me many times that family has nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with who loves and accepts you." He stood up. "This session has run double. I should get home."
"Will you be vising Itachi tonight?"
Naruto raised one brow as he was turning for the door. Catching the serious look on Iruka's face, he turned around completely and stared back. "Why…did he say he doesn't want me to? Is this really that big an issue? Come to think of it, why would he feel the need to come to you?"
"He felt like he wasn't making himself understood, and wanted advice on how to get through to you."
Naruto digested that. "Fine, I won't break his door again."
The few times he'd come home to find that Sasuke had worked late left him feeling unbalanced, but Sasuke was waiting for him, as usual. Somehow, he didn't feel his day was complete if he couldn't come home and have Sasuke's smile to greet him.
"You're late," Sasuke murmured. He was busy burying himself in Naruto's chest. "Was starting to get worried."
"How'd it go?"
For several minutes Sasuke let himself be kissed, before gently pulling back. "Naruto…there's something I want to talk to you about."
"Not you too." Naruto released him with a groan. "I don't understand how everyone keeps telling me to make an effort, to try and see Itachi as family, to accept him, but then the moment I do you same people are all over my head about it."
Half an hour later the argument was still going strong.
"-I mean your own privacy was sacred!" Sasuke shouted at Naruto's back. "I distinctly remember how violently you reacted to me just knocking on your door all those years ago. Imagine if I'd just broken in. How would you have felt then? Especially if I'd done it more than once?"
Naruto paused in the act of brushing his teeth, frowning at the sink. Back then, before he'd begun therapy or readjusted to society… He would have torn the person's throat out, asked questions later. Just the thought of someone waltzing into his place, even now, made him shudder. For a moment, he felt a wave of anxiety wash over him. But then his frown cleared. "That's different. If a stranger just walked in here I'd be upset. But Itachi is family. I didn't mind him coming over the other night."
"Are you kidding me? You would have killed him had he not flashed that light in your face!"
"You go to his place unannounced all the time. I'm no stranger to your brother."
"Naruto," Sasuke said delicately. "You're not me. Even so, don't you think Itachi'd carve my ass to ribbons if I just broke into his place? Brother or not, if he called the authorities and told them I was trespassing, they would be able to cart me away. He has the right to refuse me entry. And I respect that by not just showing up there, much as you think I do. Unless someone lives in a place, they don't have the right to just walk the fuck in. He's known me my entire life, and trusts me, but the day I moved out, he took my set of keys. You're practically a stranger to him, so-"
"I know he doesn't know me as well, but he said that I'm welcome. People don't just say that, Sasuke, least of all your brother. He's cautious. I respect that…just as I'm aware of what it means that he accepts me as family. Maybe I went over a bit late, but I agreed not to break his door again, all right? Christ, leave it alone." Naruto shut off the faucet and shouldered past a frowning Sasuke. "Itachi himself doesn't seem to have as big a problem with my visits as you and Iruka do. I'm done talking about this."
Sasuke wasn't. He waited until they were in bed to say, "You don't understand. Itachi's…particular…about his space. You cannot just show up there-"
"And I said I wouldn't for fuck's sake," Naruto turned over and roared. "How many times do I have to say that I fucking get it? I get it! But not you, or Iruka, or anyone is going to keep me from doing what I want to do."
Sasuke sat stiffly, staring at Naruto's enraged face until the latter angrily turned around again and slammed his head on the pillow. Only when the pillow had been furiously adjusted and Naruto's arms just as irritably folded, did he deign to relax a bit. He took a deep, quiet breath, and gingerly laid himself on his own pillow. Moving silently, he reached for his phone.
Itachi read the text: NO LUCK. As instructed, he called Iruka, who answered on the first ring. "Well?" the Jounin said anxiously.
"Sasuke couldn't get through to him. What happened when you spoke to him?" There was a sigh from the other end that Itachi didn't much care for.
"I'm afraid it's not good. I was reluctant to believe you when you said he's obsessed, and I'm still hesitant to use that term. Obsession is what Naruto feels for Sasuke; something that absolutely cannot be reasoned with. Ordinarily the term simply means to be continuously preoccupied with something, but for Naruto… Anyway, I would say he is merely fixated on you for the simple fact that I believe he can be reasoned with on this matter."
Itachi switched the phone to his other ear, leaning on the bar island in the kitchen. "This is the fuck who took out Akatsuki. And he's fixated on me? Do I need to list the many ways this blows? He broke my fucking door. Twice."
"He's agreed not to do that anymore."
"Great. That's perfect."
"Itachi…I don't believe this fixation will go away anytime soon. Naruto sees you as his family, and I can tell you that family is something he's never had. Clearly the notion of having family now is a potent one. I believe a little patience is in order. Once he becomes accustomed to the concept of having someone other than Sasuke in his life, his behavior should calm down considerably. Right now, he's enacting the opposite of the solitary behavior he's exhibited for most of his life. Expect some extremes, like…the door."
"I can handle some shit, all right, don't get me wrong. But I cannot have his big ass walking in here. I can't. Not here. He can do whatever in hell he wants to do outside my house."
"Well, like I said, he's agreed not to break in."
"I'll believe that when I see it."
Mo called from the bedroom just then to ask when he was coming to bed. Itachi hung up the phone.
Naruto was enraptured over the next couple of weeks. True to his word he didn't break into Itachi's place again, but then he hardly needed to; Itachi kept in constant contact with him. Even so, he made sure to visit Itachi nearly every night. He and Itachi spoke on a variety of topics, until Itachi ceased to be home in the evenings. He wasn't disappointed for long. Itachi made a point of visiting him at work. Often. Especially while he was in important meetings. To say he was pleased at being so hounded and beset would have been an understatement; he basked in the attention.
Itachi would barge into the conference room, face wreathed in smiles, and hail Naruto heartily. He usually had a bucket or two of fried chicken under his arm as well, for Naruto and whomever he was meeting with. That happened with increasing frequency, until one ambassador took Naruto aside and told him in no uncertain terms that he could no longer continue negotiations under such deplorable conditions. That this sentiment was echoed by several others was the only reason Naruto approached Itachi and told him that his meetings were sadly not to be interrupted. He'd eyed Itachi warily afterwards.
But Itachi, after appearing crestfallen for a moment, had brightened up. "It's cool, man. We can hang at your place. When can we come over?"
"My place? Who's we?"
"Me, Mo, and the kids, who else? We're your family, right?"
"Oh. Of course. And anytime."
"Anytime at all?"
Naruto smiled. "I look forward to it."
He'd gone home that night to find Sasuke staring at his brother with hooded eyes, and Itachi himself romping around the living room floor in the bungalow with both his children. Mo was in his kitchen, handling his dishes as she ate the last of the pot roast Sasuke had made the night before. That had unsettled him a bit, as had the sheer noise Ichi seemed capable of. He'd stood there a moment, staring at the scene on the floor, until Itachi caught sight of him and hurried over.
"Dude, where's your TV?"
"I don't have one," Naruto said. "What-"
"Ah, well…the kids want to play with their uncle. You mind?"
"Nah, man. You." And he shoved the girl child at him. Naruto caught her reflexively.
Sasuke stalked off to the bedroom and slammed the door.
Naruto, having no experience with children so young, was fascinated by the antics and mannerisms of Ichi and Kayo for all of twenty minutes. He neither understood their whining and babbling, nor cared for how the boy seemed intent on touching every object in the house. Mo had yet to leave his kitchen, and Itachi seemed to be on a lengthy phone call. Holding the squalling Kayo carefully, he made his way to the bedroom.
Sasuke spoke without turning over. "Send their asses home."
"Wouldn't that be rude?"
Sasuke turned over and sat up slowly, staring at Naruto with narrowed eyes. "You're impossible. What do you think is going on here?"
"Your brother's visiting."
"Oh, so he's my brother now. Can't you see he's trying to teach you a lesson? He's trying to show you how intrusive he feels your visits and attention are."
Naruto gazed at him unblinkingly for several moments, unspeakably hurt that Sasuke would say such a thing. If that were true…"That-" He swallowed. "That would mean he finds my visits and attentions unwelcome. He hasn't said that. And I think your brother is the kind of person to say what he wants, regardless."
"Ordinarily, that's true."
"So if he finds my company so repulsive why hasn't he said anything? I won't believe he's afraid to speak his mind to me. He's the only man alive to threaten me and live to tell of it. He even called me an asshole. I'd kill a man for a lesser insult."
Sasuke stared. It was disconcerting to see Naruto's face settle into the stoic lines they'd been in when he'd first seen him in that convenience store and know that he'd hurt him with his words just now. Worse to see him awkwardly bouncing his niece as he calmly spoke of killing. "I didn't mean-"
"No, that's exactly what you meant. According to you, your brother finds me a nuisance. Isn't that what you said?" He was no longer bouncing Kayo. His entire body had gone still, and his voice was quiet with budding anger.
Sasuke eased across the bed toward his niece, and reached for her. "I only meant-"
Naruto dropped the baby and turned for the door. Sasuke barely caught her before she toppled over the side of the mattress.
Out in the living room, Naruto stepped over a howling Ichi, right up to where Itachi was sprawled in his armchair. Without a word, he took the phone Itachi was speaking into and shut it with a snap.
Itachi was on his feet instantly. "Son of a bitch! The fuck you think you're doing?"
"That's what I would like to know," Naruto retorted, tossing the phone back at him. "Am I a burden? Are my visits, is my…company…unwelcome?"
The angry curses died in his throat. Itachi measured the glint in those blue eyes and grit his teeth, thinking. Somehow he didn't think throwing on the retarded smile he usually used around Naruto would work this time. "I don't know where you're getting your information-"
"Sasuke." A muscle in Naruto's jaw flexed, and those eyes seemed to grow an extra layer of ice. "Have you been playing me? Making fun of me with your office visits? Interrupting my meetings? Now that I think about it, someone of your legendary intelligence would know better than to interrupt my meetings time and again." There was no doubt now of the ice in both eyes and voice. The temperature in the room seemed to condense with the threat.
"Mo, take the kids and wait for me in the car." When she'd gathered her children –Sasuke had come into the living room with Kayo- Itachi waited until the door closed behind her before adopting a serious tone and expression. "Of course not. But you seemed like the kind of person who'd enjoy that sort of thing. I was just trying to make a connection with you, treating you as you treat me. That's how people are supposed to treat others…as they themselves are treated. Did I fuck up, man? I thought we were here." He wagged his middle and index fingers back and forth between his eyes and Naruto's, voice now bewildered.
Naruto continued to glare at him suspiciously.
"You came over often, so I responded in kind. I'm sorry, man…if it bugs you-"
The tension and suspicion broke in Naruto; the air in the room lightened, and the frown between his eyes smoothed out. Sasuke put a hand on the archway between living room and kitchen as he sagged from his point of vigilance. The muscles in Itachi's body relaxed only a little. "No, it doesn't," Naruto said. "But I'm not used to your children. In future, leave them home when you visit me."
"Yeah man, whatev-"
"If I were bothering you, you'd tell me, right?"
"In a heartbeat."
And with that, Naruto gave a small, satisfied nod.
At work the next day, Sasuke cornered him. "You fucking liar."
Itachi was unapologetic. "Your shrink said that to disabuse your hubby of the apparent welcome with which I view his visits might have negative effects. And the fucker was right. Did you see him last night? I'd've told him the truth and that'd have been the end of my crack. Nah, man. Iruka says he's working on a solution and will be over in a few days to discuss it with me. Wants you there as well so it can be a joint effort. Until then, I will continue to lie through my teeth and consider myself lucky."
Sasuke eyed him sadly. "You're really afraid of him?"
Itachi swiveled in his chair incredulously, facing him. "Yes! You're not?"
"No. Naruto would never hurt me. And I don't think he'd ever hurt you now, either. You didn't see him last night, when I told him he was bugging you. That hurt him. He's only as hard and brutal as he is because deep inside there are parts of him that are really vulnerable. Part of him is still that helpless victim of Danzo. Iruka said that part of him might never heal and he compensates for it in all these other ways. The OCD, the personality quirks…its all him trying to function despite being broken in a few areas."
Itachi frowned at a few under-techs working on the far side of the room, considering. "That may be, but then why the bleeding fuck did you open your mouth about me in the first place? Telling him he's bugging me, what the fuck."
"I don't know. I should have considered it. But you lying to him isn't a good idea. And if you didn't want him in your ass, you shouldn't have told him he was family."
"You started that shit, not me."
"Yeah, well…I didn't think he'd take it this far."
Itachi snorted, turning back to his screens. "Who's supposed to know, if not you? You're the one living with him."
When Sasuke got home, it was to find a note from Naruto stuck to the front door. Meditating. Don't come after me. Sasuke read it twice, before looking off into the forest. "Shit."
During the three and a half years he'd been separated from Sasuke, he'd left the mountain to meditate often. Sometimes it helped, but more often than not he'd been forced to go back to the bungalow or his office as unsettled as he'd been before he'd left.
Now was the same. Everyone kept telling him that what he was doing with Itachi was wrong that it was too much…but Itachi, he'd found, was an astute judge of character. Surely he understood that he, Naruto, had issues? That though he was Hokage, he still struggled with everyday social cues and behavior? The few people in his inner circle were aware of this, with the result that he didn't necessarily have to try and conform to what was viewed as acceptable behavior. And as for the people he worked with, people like ambassadors, or other Kage…they viewed him with respect. If he displayed any erratic behavior it was simply explained away by the fact of him being a Vessel, or having lived as a hermit for so many years. He rather thought that Itachi understood all this, and accepted it too.
So the nagging suspicion that he was annoying Itachi, despite Itachi's assurances otherwise, upset him more than he could say. Nor could he readily explain how thoroughly the thought of Itachi had become entrenched in his breast. He only knew that there had never been anyone like Itachi in his life, someone who called him family. Jiraiya himself hadn't even treated him so familiarly.
For the first time in decades he thought of his mother. He'd known her such a brief time. Hours, really, and yet he could recall the love in her eyes at seeing him. Seeing her son grown to a teenager. Her rage at seeing him restrained, at learning he would be tortured as she was. She'd been so weak, and yet there'd been a small surge of life in her at seeing him and learning his fate. Witnessing her feeble struggles to reach him….and then watching her murdered…
Naruto's heart seized up in his chest now, stuttering and thumping at the remembered anguish. He hastily disconnected himself from the memory, but his chakra was already unleashed, blazing around him like an inferno and singing the surrounding forest. Several trees were incinerated immediately while others that were farther away burst into flame. He breathed with difficulty for a time, gasping and pressing one palm over his mouth. The other hand clutched at his shirt, over his heart. His eyes squeezed shut as he strove for control- it hadn't gotten away from him like this in years, not since he was a teen. Bringing it back was hard. For a little while he cried, as the memories refused to be put away…but then they went, and he was able to draw in a deep breath.
It was some little while later until he could lower his hand. He was able to put his chakra away and swallow shakily. Gazing up at the sky, he said a small, private prayer of thanks that his memories hadn't progressed to what happened after his mother died. That was something he never thought about, ever. Bad as his mother's murder was, it was nothing compared to Danzo. Nothing.
She'd loved him. He knew that much. She'd been his mother, his family, and she'd loved him. Suffered for him. Seeing the bond Sasuke had with his brother, he could admit, here and now, that a large part of the animosity he'd had for Itachi hadn't been so much about jealousy over his hold on Sasuke, as it had been jealousy over their bond. Sasuke had family. He didn't.
It had never dawned on him, not until this moment, how much he'd wanted a family. How much he secretly craved someone, anyone, who would fill that void in him. Someone who would take him, and help him in the ways he couldn't help himself. Touch the places in him that not even Sasuke could reach. And he believed, truly and utterly, that he'd found that with Itachi. They'd gotten off to a rocky start, but Itachi was the only person he knew of, the only one, who knew exactly what he was and wasn't remotely afraid of him. Who dared to threaten him. Who treated him with a familiarity no one anywhere else did. If there existed anyone who could be a brother to him, a real brother, it was Itachi. So the idea that he was pushing the man away, that he wasn't, in fact, welcome, was more than he could stand.
I need to see him. Naruto vanished from the forest.
"And that's the best you can come up with? That you don't know how to stop Naruto?" Itachi said flatly.
Iruka shrugged uncomfortably. "I'm afraid so. Every scenario I come up with has a violent end. The simple fact of it is this: once Naruto takes a notion into his mind, he can't be made to release it. You grossly misjudge the abilities or function of a psychologist if you think I can forcibly alter Naruto's behavior –or anyone's- in any way. I'm there to help him reach healthy decisions on his own, but if he simply refuses, then that's it. I will say, though, that your actions haven't helped matters. Your attempts to teach him a lesson were viewed as the very invitation he's been craving. Had you consulted me first, I would have advised you against it."
They were all gathered in Itachi's living room, standing in a worried cluster. Kakashi was present, as were Sasuke and Mo. The kids were asleep. "What about medication?" Itachi said after a moment of thought.
"I don't recommend that. Not only because it would be forcing Naruto in an unpleasant way, but because I'm not even sure drugs would work on him. I'm fairly certain his metabolism would neutralize them."
Itachi shook his head, staring at the floor. "I can't live like this. I can't."
Sasuke'd had his arms tightly crossed throughout the entire conversation. He spoke up now. "I still say you're overreacting. He won't hurt you. He's sort of adopted you, you heard Iruka. You're family to him now, and Naruto's never had that. He's not going to hurt you."
Iruka watched the glare Itachi gave Sasuke with interest, understanding something of a sudden. "It's not about fear of being hurt," he said in answer to Sasuke. "It's about your brother having trust issues. He doesn't tell you much about the inner workings of his mind, does he."
Itachi snorted, but Sasuke frowned. "He doesn't need to. I know how he thinks, and I know he sees this as a violation of his space-"
"Oh, it's more than that," Iruka said. "Much more than that, but that's for your brother to discuss with you. Itachi, my good man, I will say this. You and Naruto are pretty much in the same predicament. You, like him, need to start letting people in. True, Naruto already seems to be doing that, but for the majority of his life, he was a fortress unto himself. With troubling results, as you can see. At some point, you're going to have to accept that your life, like his, is changed now. You each have more people in your lives, and are living out in society. No man can remain an island."
While they digested this, Kakashi lifted his head, his eyes sharpening. "We've got company."
But by then they all felt the pressure of an enormous chakra source. As one, they looked toward the door.
During the past week, Itachi had had his door replaced with a solid steel one. Getting through it now required his or Mo's palm print. It was a ludicrous piece of hardware to have in such an unassuming apartment building, but it was the only way he felt remotely comfortable in his place now, and only a little at that.
There was no knock. As they all watched, they felt a small spike in the chakra, before the area around the palm screen slowly began to glow red. "Are you seeing this?" Itachi hissed, now past all endurance.
Iruka hurriedly stepped over to him and spoke in a low voice, for his ears alone. "I can't get through to him, but perhaps you can. You are, after all, the focus of his attention. And I am well acquainted with your intellect. It could very well be that you'll see a solution where I don't. Remember," Iruka went on as they all watched a hole being melted through the metal, "You're going to have to come out of the fortress you have up around your life too. Perhaps you two can meet each other halfway."
The glowing, smoking blobs of steel fell to the floor, where they immediately ate through the wood. A hand lit with chakra hooked into the still-glowing hole, and wrenched backward sharply. The entire door was yanked away, with a tortured shriek of metal, leaving ragged chunks of wood where steel panels had been affixed to the doorway to hold the door. The door was carried and gently set aside somewhere in the hall, before Naruto ducked in through the opening.
Naruto stopped short at seeing the small crowd of faces looking at him, but he only had eyes for Itachi. Itachi, whose eyes were red and whose face was set in an expression of disapproval. Something in Naruto quaked, until those red eyes went pointedly to the ruined doorway. A tiny shudder of relief went through him. "I'm sorry about the door," Naruto began, but then he stopped. He had no idea what to say, or how to voice all the needs and confusion in him. He stood there, while they stared at him.
"It seems like you want to speak to Itachi privately," Iruka said after a moment. He gathered Kakashi and Sasuke with a glance, and headed for the doorway.
Sasuke stopped to lay a hand on Naruto's arm, murmuring something that Naruto didn't answer. Mo moved closer to Itachi, but he tipped his head at Sasuke, silently telling her to go with him. The kids were left behind. Before Iruka disappeared down the hall, he spared a single, meaningful glance for Itachi.
Itachi caught the reminder. He was on his own with this.
Naruto stepped aside as they all filed out. When he turned back toward him, Itachi made calm and careful note of the man's agitation. The fact that his chakra was still unsettled wasn't lost on him. Deciding to keep his eyes on. He remained where he was, in the living room, while Naruto likewise stayed by the door. They regarded each other in silence.
"Are you afraid of me?" Naruto asked at last. "I didn't think you were."
Itachi considered his answer carefully. Naruto's voice had been a bit unsteady just now. He was monitoring everything, every gesture Naruto made, every twitch and twinge on his face, every syllable he spoke. Scenarios played out in his mind, dozens at a time, in rapid sequence. Some were discarded immediately, others after a few moves, while others after still more moves. One came to him with the least possibility of physical harm. "Yes and no."
Naruto's face cracked a bit at the word yes, and just as quickly righted itself at the word no. "Are you?"
More careful deliberation this time. "No."
Naruto blinked in thought, trying to understand. When he did he almost smiled, his relief was so great. "You're angry."
"You could say that."
Naruto took a step toward him, but stopped when Itachi's lips thinned. "I…had to see you."
"A call would have been nice. A knock, even. That," he said, pointing his chin at the hole formerly known as his door, "is the last straw."
"What do you mean?" Naruto didn't like the edge he heard in that statement. It sounded disturbingly close to a threat of some kind.
Itachi reigned in his anger and redirected it. That was for later. Or never, considering it was Naruto he was dealing with. "What'd you need to see me about?"
Now Naruto did approach, ignoring the way Itachi tensed. "I want to know if…" he hesitated, suddenly guarded. It occurred to him that he was about to open himself in a way he'd never willingly opened himself to anyone before. Sasuke had entered his heart in spite of his walls, but this…this was different. He was about to consciously give Itachi the power to hurt him. To hurt him maybe as much as the separation from Sasuke had done. But I have to know. "I want to know if you're really a brother to me. I know I'm…strange to you, to many people, sometimes. But I have to know if you meant it when you said I was your family. Am I?"
Itachi watched in complete fascination as those blue eyes welled with tears that Naruto seemed to be completely unaware of, and all but felt the man tearing at his resistance. Iruka was right. He was a fortress. Had to be. It was the only way he'd been able to survive his lifestyle, and thus keep himself and Sasuke alive. And here Naruto was, ripping his walls away much as he'd ripped his way into the apartment only minutes ago. Forcing himself inside, forcing Itachi into a corner.
For a moment, just a moment, he considered fighting the intrusion. He could. If he put his mind to it, he could shut Naruto out, disappear…and remain a fortress. Remain isolated. Keep running, in other words. Oh, he'd made a lot of progress, getting married, having kids. But all he'd done was expand his walls. Mo and the kids lived on his little island, along with Sasuke…and he suddenly realized that his own son and daughter might very well end up with issues of their own if he didn't loosen up a bit. Shit was different now. He was married, and his children didn't need the burdens he'd had to heap on Sasuke to make sure they stayed safe.
Am I your family? Naruto had asked.
He looked at Naruto, really looked into him. Naruto made this easy, unguarded as he was at the moment. This time he was able to see past the weirdness to what was really there. A little, at least. "Yes."
Naruto's tears, as yet unshed, swelled until one spilled over. "Itachi-"
"Because somewhere inside I think you're as broken as I am."
Itachi had to look away, swallowing. "I think you and I need to talk," he said slowly. "But not now. I can't do this now, Christ."
Naruto nodded, looking at the floor. Then he looked back up at Itachi. "When?"
"Come over tomorrow. Tomorrow night."
"Oh. All right…" he stood there a moment more, though, until Itachi finally released his Sharingan. "Tomorrow, then."
Itachi spent the following day doing research. Mo took the kids and left in the morning, with Sasuke, whom he'd called and apprised of the plans he'd put in place some days ago. Movers came and went in the apartment for a while, taking his furniture. They were done by mid-morning, though. Sasuke texted a little while later, saying the movers had finished setting the furniture up in the new place, and that he was seeing to Mo, making sure she rested while he watched the kids. He turned his phone off after that. It was something he rarely did, but he didn't want any interruptions. He'd trust Sasuke to handle anything that might crop up.
Back to his research. Being head of TD had its advantages. He had only to call up the files in question, access them with codes only he and Sasuke were privileged to, and thus gain entry into restricted data.
Iruka said he was on his own. For him to come up with a way to get through to Naruto himself. As plans went, what he intended tonight wasn't without risks, but he could see no alternative. Drumming the fingers of one hand on a knee, he used the other to cover his mouth as he thought. Naruto's plea the previous night came back to him. Had never really left his thoughts, if he was honest. He didn't know if he had the balls to actually do what he planned tonight, but he intended to damn well try.
Shaking slightly, he reached out and closed his laptop.
By the time Naruto showed up that evening, he was sitting at the bar island, on a stool he'd had the movers leave. The stool next to him was empty. He nodded at Naruto to enter, gesturing at the spare stool at the same time.
Naruto hesitated. The doorway hadn't been repaired. Looking at it, and at where Itachi sat in the dark apartment, he carefully stepped inside. As he slowly rounded the bar island, Itachi pushed a stool toward him with his foot. The faint scraping sound this action caused was the only noise in the apartment. He didn't need to look to know they were alone, but he did spend a moment or two making note of the lack of furniture. He wanted to ask about this, but truthfully he was too nervous.
He hadn't gone into the office today, leaving Kakashi to stand in for him again. Just what it was Itachi could want to speak to him about, he had no idea, but speculation had left him incapacitated with worry. Itachi had said he was family once again last night, but even he could tell that the answer had been laden with other things. Things that had gone unspoken. It was wondering what these unspoken things could be that had oppressed him today. And here it was Itachi looked like he was leaving. He was sure it was his fault. That had him stiff with tension and dread. Whatever was going to be said tonight would be unpleasant, he was sure of it.
Straightening his spine, he leaned one forearm on the island, sitting on his stool so that he faced Itachi's profile. Itachi himself sat with his elbows on the island, hands steepled over his mouth, and staring across the empty living room. To still his sudden tremor of nerves, Naruto clenched the hand he had on the island into a fist. "I'm here."
A small, mirthless snort left Itachi, but he didn't address the comment. Instead, he continued to stare across the room, his eyes moving idly as if he were watching some invisible play. When he finally lowered his hands to clasp them in front of himself, Naruto thought he'd reached his breaking point. He was wound tight enough to shatter at the slightest provocation. But then Itachi, still looking across the room, began speaking.
"You asked me a question last night."
Naruto swallowed. "Yes."
"Asked me if you were my family."
"I answered you, but I…lied."
Naruto felt a stab punch through his chest, and clenched his jaws. The fist he had on the island tightened until he was able to pry his jaws apart. "I'm not…you don't accept me?"
Itachi, very aware of the man's chakra slowly escalating, continued to remain outwardly calm, though every hair on the nape of his neck stood on end. "What I mean is I answered prematurely. I want to accept you, was basically what my answer meant last night. But I can't. Not until I make a few things clear to you."
"Then all the times you said I was family you were lying."
"Not exactly. Like it or not, you're with my brother. That makes you something, that's for damn sure. I can accept that you're part of him now, and since he's part of me I guess that makes you family."
"Then how did you lie?"
Now Itachi glanced at him. "Because I haven't accepted you into my life. I didn't want to."
Naruto, thinking of the recent days and weeks of Itachi's attention, felt the stab of pain twist deeper. "But now you do?"
"I'm willing to try. But like I said, I need to make a few things clear to you. I…get…that you've never had family, and that you're expecting me to fill that role for you, but it's not as simple as me just saying you're my family. I think there's shit about you, about me too for that matter, that needs to be discussed before you and I can reach that point."
Naruto blinked. "Is this about the door again?"
Itachi looked at him for a long time. "Yeah, I guess it is. About a door I never open." He switched to looking at his hands, separating them so that he could stare at his palms. He seemed to see strange things there.
"What do you mean?" Naruto asked at last.
Frowning, Itachi spoke in a low voice, one that seemed to bypass his trademark foul language completely. "All my life, I've had this…understanding, I guess you could say. I had this understanding that the buck stopped with me. That I was it, that as far as protection went Sasuke and I were going to live or die based on my actions. Most people grow up knowing they have parents to fill that role. To protect them. That there's this shield between them and the rest of the world. I never had that. Oh, I had parents, and they tried to shield me, but it killed them. Saw it happen. When you're small, you think there's nothing in the world that can get to you so long as your parents are around. They're absolute. Untouchable. They're the meaning of safety. That if anything ever got through them, you'd be screwed."
Naruto, spellbound, leaned forward when Itachi paused. He couldn't say that he'd ever had such a belief as a child, but then he'd never had parents.
"So they died," Itachi continued matter-of-factly. "And there was Sasuke. Mantle was on my shoulders now. I was the shield." He looked up from his hands, staring across the living room as if searching for something. "I didn't forget that for an instant, that all Sasuke had was me. There was nothing between him and death but one small, weak six-year-old. Even growing up, getting older, a part of me always saw myself as that scared kid. Running. Running, running, running. Shielding Sasuke. But no one to shield me. No one to hold out their hand and say, 'It's okay, buddy. I got this. Take a break.' There was no one to lean on. No one to trust. No one I could entrust my safety to, or Sasuke's." He glanced at Naruto again. "I'm going to tell you something I've never told Sasuke."
"Oh. Okay," Naruto said when Itachi seemed to hesitate. "I won't tell him."
"Sometimes I wanted to leave him. Sometimes, before I'd figured out how to work, when I couldn't find money or food, or diapers, I just wanted to leave him in some alley and not look back. Find some sweet family to take me in. Feed me. Take care of me. Forget all about Sasuke. Once…" Itachi swallowed. Turned his head aside. "Once I thought about killing him. So he wouldn't have to suffer. I was six. He went hungry, was filthy, got bumped and scraped…I thought if he wasn't around to suffer then it would be all right. I'd find a family and just live with them. But if I took him with me to a family, there'd be all sorts of questions. A report. We'd be found. Better if he was dead. I remember…sitting in some abandoned house. Sasuke in my arms, looking up at me. He hardly ever cried. It was like he knew we had to be quiet to survive. I had him there in my arms that time –he couldn't have been more than a few weeks old by then- and I wanted to kill him. I put my hand over his nose and mouth…but I couldn't." Itachi's voice was clogged, and it was several moments before he could go on. "I couldn't. He started sucking my hand, hungry as usual, and I just couldn't." Itachi took a deep breath. "I don't know how he survived that first month with me, or the next, but I never betrayed him again. Never again. But I remember."
Staring hard at Itachi's profile, Naruto felt a fullness in his throat. He knew what it was to be so utterly alone in one's misery. Alone, and to know that there was no one alive who could possibly help.
"It made going on easier," Itachi said sometime later. "Remembering that lapse I had. Anytime I felt like giving up I'd remember my hand on his face. It made the sacrifices possible. My job. Letting my body be used. Killing. The vigilance. The constant, never-ending lookout for a suspicious glance, or any sense that Akatsuki was getting close. I didn't have friends. Couldn't go off for an hour and have fun. I had a job to do. That was my life. Lived with fear so much that eventually I stopped feeling it. It mutated, somehow. Became this weird ability to think ahead, analyze. The more afraid I was, the better I could think. That and the fact that I had to adapt. There was no one to protect me. If I went down, then Sasuke was history. No one could be trusted. Anyone at all could be an enemy, or know someone who knew someone who knew the enemy. I couldn't let anyone in. Not if we wanted to live. Do you understand me?"
"I think so, yes." Naruto gave a small nod. "Safety was everything to you. And to stay safe, you had to isolate yourself."
"Yes. No one was allowed to get close. If I met someone on the street, and then later that same person happened to see me again and said hi, that was it. Sasuke and I were gone within the hour. It's a habit that kept us alive. Which brings me to you."
"Me?" Naruto's attention sharpened. "But I would never hurt you. And there's no one after you anymore."
Itachi studied him. "Akatsuki's dead, but as far as I'm concerned there will always be someone after me. I've lived so long with the belief that safety's only a dream that I can't be any other way, Naruto. Which means my space, my personal space, is sacred. It's my own little pocket of safety. I've progressed to the point where I can stay in one place now, and I've obviously let Mo into my life, but my space is my space. My only sanctuary in the world." He stopped there, letting that sink in. Seeing no change in Naruto's face, he took a deep breath. "I did some digging on you."
"Did you? My files are restricted."
Ignoring that, Itachi chose his words carefully. "Danzo did a lot of shit to you." Naruto flinched hard, but he went on. "I read the reports. The ones the Fifth found down in that place you were kept. Read them. Made what Akatsuki did to me seem like foreplay. You don't talk about that, do you."
He was panting, he realized. Trembling. Naruto shook his head. "No. You can't…you can't talk about this, not…not ever-"
"Right." Itachi studied him closely, monitoring the threat of chakra while calculating his odds of escape if he went on. "It's off limits. Period. That whole time, but especially what Danzo did to you."
Naruto, hanging onto his control with both hands, stood up and turned away. "Stop. Stop it, you can't say these things!" The memories, so abruptly uncovered, threatened to consume him where he stood.
Itachi watched the chakra snap into being. Looked at the way it peeled the linoleum off the kitchen floor, how it cracked the walls. It washed over him in stiff, hot waves where he sat, but he pressed on anyway. "If you're my family, and I'm yours, it's important we know these things about each other. It's even more important that we respect these things." He paused. "There was one particular thing that Danzo used to do you. You know what I'm talking about. That thing with the-"
"NO!" Naruto roared, clamping his hands around his head.
The cabinets behind him suddenly ripped away from the floor, to crash against the bathroom door. Itachi himself was buffeted and shoved by the storm. He stood against the wall, a forearm raised over his face. The light fixture overhead blew out and both stools seemed to soften and melt where they stood. The chakra affected different things in different ways, Itachi saw, but he went on. "Exactly. There are some things about you that are simply never to be mentioned. So imagine how you'd feel if I tried to do that thing to you. That thing Danzo did."
Naruto's head swung toward him. The chakra cloak was now complete. It surged when Naruto looked at him, sweeping around the apartment to blow out all the windows and lights, and reduce all the wall cabinets in the kitchen to so much kindling. Itachi was pressed to the wall by the force of it.
"That's what you breaking into my place is like."
As quickly as it had sprung up, the chakra died. There was heavy silence in the aftermath. Naruto's face wore a look of pure horror.
"That's what it's like," Itachi said again. He lowered his arm. "There are some things you and I just can't handle, and for me it's any violation of my space. It makes me feel unsafe. As it is, I can't even live here anymore because, in my mind, the apartment's been compromised. No longer safe. I'm sure you'll find out where I've moved to, just as I'm sure you could get in to that place as well without even trying. But as long as you don't force the issue, I'll be able to feel safe. I hope you understand now."
Naruto was all awkward fidgeting. The abrupt cessation of his chakra, and the sudden understanding of what he'd been doing to Itachi left him severely off-balance. "I…yes. Itachi... I'm so sorry. I didn't understand before, but I do now. Never…I will never enter your space again without your authorization. Your permission. I will n-"
"That's good. Because I wasn't quite finished with the subject of you being family. Now that you understand how and why I never let anyone in, I hope you can appreciate what I mean when I say that I am letting you in."
Feeling an odd mixture of anxiety, shame, and crushing guilt, Naruto stood staring at him and nervously wringing his hands. "Is this…the door again? I swear I won't-"
"It's not the door. It's what I said before. About having no shield. The buck stopping with me. Me being the only protection I could count on for myself because there was…no one…else." Itachi wet his lips, trying to get the rest out. "I put Sasuke in your hands. That wasn't easy for me. But you're asking to be my brother now and…it's hard. Hard for me to trust you. You do some scary-ass shit, and it's just hard, man. The last people I trusted to have my back died right in front of me. Tsunade offered to protect me too, and she's dead. But…Iruka was right. I have a wife. Kids. And I can't keep doing this alone. I've never had a big brother. I'm the big brother. So…I'm letting you in. I'm trusting you. To be my family. My brother. To…to have my back."
And now he really understood everything. Naruto stood frozen in place as full comprehension dawned in his mind, burning away memories of Danzo and suffusing him with fiery heat of a different sort. Itachi stared into his eyes without blinking, waiting for him to speak, and he held the gaze with a firm one of his own. In complete awareness of what he was being given, what he was being offered, Naruto took two measured steps forward and put a shaking hand on Itachi's shoulder. He needed a moment to calm his racing pulse down, but when he spoke, it was with rock-solid conviction. A sworn promise. "I am your brother, Itachi. As long as I live, you and yours are safe. May I prove worthy of your trust." Then, recalling something said earlier, he added. "You can take a break."
It was the eyes, Itachi decided. He could hear the promise in Naruto's tone, but it was those blue eyes, so steady in the dark. Naruto wasn't just making a promise, he was stating a fact.
The most alarming sensation came over him then. Something, some weight he'd been carrying since he was six was suddenly just…gone. He felt inexplicably naked. As if something vital and important had been taken from him. Fear rose up to fill the sudden void, fear he hadn't felt in years, but then, just as suddenly, he was being held against a solid chest. He realized Naruto's strong arms were around him, that his own hands were over his face, and that he was crying. He couldn't remember crying real tears since before his parents had died.
Naruto's arms squeezed him. One of his hands smoothed over his back, his hair, his neck, and he just let it happen. Just let the burden go at long last as he cried as quietly as possible into Naruto's shoulder.
One week later…
The new place was a pleasant two story house on the quieter side of town. He'd left the office early today to help Mo with the kids. Both Kayo and The Terror were fed and put to bed. Mo had turned in an hour ago. Sasuke had called to report that he'd locked up at the job, and was heading home himself. A glance at the clock showed it to be half past seven. He anticipated a quiet evening reading the paper, before he turned in himself.
The doorbell rang.
He waited, but the ring wasn't repeated. After a minute he went to the door, and pulled it open.
"May I come in?" Naruto asked with a quiet smile.
Smiling himself, Itachi stepped aside and opened the door wider. "'Course, man. Thanks for dropping by."
As Naruto was walking in, Itachi shut the door thoughtfully. Looking at where the big man calmly waited, he realized something. That the unease he used to feel around Naruto was gone. It had been replaced with something he couldn't immediately name. Something he hadn't felt since he was small. It brought to mind being tucked into bed by gentle hands. A deep voice reading him bedtime stories while he was ensconced in a strong embrace. The smell of his home when his mother was cooking, and his dad sitting in a corner reading.
I can stop running, he thought. Studying the way Naruto looked at him, he knew he was finally safe. Knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt. Knew that the things that used to scare him about Naruto were now the very things that allowed him to feel at peace. To recognize him as the shield he'd been searching for his entire life. And this one won't break. He is my brother now. It was a glad thought.
Abruptly he grinned. "So, big bro. What's up?"